1941-1942: A Diary of Memories, New Reflections on the Past

October 26, 2012 by Admin

By Art Okuno

Author’s Note: This piece is based on excerpts from my wartime diary and new material that I added during the process of writing this story.

December 7, 1941—San Francisco

A second year commuting student at the University of California, Berkeley, I was sitting at a table in the warmest room–the kitchen–of our rented San Francisco “flat” and studying for finals, music from a radio playing in the background.  Suddenly, the song was interrupted by the announcement that Japanese planes were bombing Pearl Harbor.  How could this be happening?  I leaned forward, listening intently as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke,

“The United States has declared war with Japan.”  I turned off the radio.  What would happen to us?

Soon curfews and blackouts were imposed, followed by the requirement for us to have coupons in order to purchase sugar, coffee and other scarce items.  How could I continue my studies with the curfews and blackouts?  Luckily, my professors allowed me to take my final exams by mail at home.  Because of their kind concern, I was able to complete my sophomore year.

February 15, 1942

I went to the nearby Raphael Weill School to register for the draft, waiting for about 45 minutes before I was interviewed.  Soon after, I received a notification stating that I had been re-classified as 4-C, an “enemy alien” and ineligible for the draft.

February 19, 1942 

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had signed Executive Order 9066, giving the army the authority to remove whomever they decided from the West Coast.  This meant that my father, mother, and my younger brother and I, who were United States  citizens, could be forcibly removed from our home. I was apprehensive and scared of what would happen to our family, especially because of the Holocaust in Europe about which I had heard and read.

The army ignored the then FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) Director J. Edgar Hoover’s analysis of the forced removal as “. . . based primarily upon public and political pressure rather than on factual data” (Personal Justice Denied  73).

Thereafter, anti-Japanese forces took over, especially instigated by the Hearst newspapers that published articles with false information, such as reports of Japanese farmers plowing their fields in the form of arrows that supposedly pointed in the direction of nearby military bases.

General John L. Dewitt, who was Commanding Officer of the Western Defense Command, was empowered by Executive Order 9066 to exclude persons for reasons of military necessity. He exempted nearly all German and Italian aliens, but included all persons of Japanese  ancestry.  In General Dewitt’s words: “a Jap’s a Jap . . .  It makes no difference whether he is an American (citizen)” (Bosworth 178).  Anti-Japanese Farmers’ co-ops and the silence of the then Governor of California, Earl Warren, added fuel to the fires.

May 5, 1942   

Evacuation Order #41 was posted on a telephone pole near our residence–the order applied to our family and all other Japanese living in the area bounded by Webster, Sutter, Laguna and Geary Streets.  Because of the directive to take only what we could carry, we gave away tables, chairs, beds, and so on. Peddlers came around asking for and picking up discarded furniture.  The Evangelical Lutheran Church, where I was a member, and the Buddhist Church allowed us tostore items that we couldn’t take with us.  We stored photos of Mom and Dad and me as a toddler reading a book (I was a fan of King Arthur and His Round Table and named myself Arthur); report cards through junior high school and my 1939 graduation from Lowell High School; my precious Eagle Scout badge and ring; and pieces of the uniforms I wore as a member of San Francisco Troop 12.

One of the items we did not want to part with was a large one—a car called Durant, a forerunner of the Chevrolet.  One of my Dad’s employers offered to store it in their garage for the war’s duration. Whew!!  A big relief for us.  After the war, upon our return to San Francisco,   we went to pick up our car which was still there.  We lowered the tire jacks, pumped up the tires, put in some gas and, with many thanks, drove home.

May 11, 1942

My father, mother, younger brother and I, together with the other Japanese families from the area, assembled at the local YMCA; we held only what we could carry.  My baggage consisted of a scout knapsack, duffle bag, and two suitcases; inside were my engineering handbook and five pounds of sugar that I had purchased with our last ration ticket.  Boarding buses, we were taken to Third and Townsend Streets, where we boarded a train.  With the window shades drawn, I could not see where we were going.  Where will we end up? Would our family remain together?

For lunch and for dinner, we were given box lunches which included two sandwiches, a cupcake and an orange, and milk.  At night I tossed and turned in my seat; I couldn’t sleep for very long—only about 2 hours. The train stopped at Los Angeles Depot at 2:30 pm.  Why were we not allowed to get off?  Then we headed somewhere south and, at around 5:30 a.m., the train finally stopped at the Pomona Fairgrounds, where we were unloaded.

We lined up for registration and were assigned our housing.  Our new home was a horse stall that had been white-washed  and contained four cots on a dusty dirt floor.  Soon my mother felt nauseous and became sick from the stench of manure that remained in the stall. I was angry and upset and insisted that we be moved.  We were assigned to a newly built barrack and, to my relief, my mother recovered.

August 20, 1942

8:00 a.m., and we were moving again to Heart Mountain. Wyoming.

At 9:00 a.m., my family and  I boarded a Union Pacific train with 14 cars, 1 dining car, and pulled by two locomotives.  At 2:30 p.m., I had my first real meal: lettuce salad, and a main dish with a small veal cutlet and potatoes and ice cream for dessert.

8:30 p.m.—we had peppers and cabbage salad, chicken soup, roast beef, potatoes and lima beans and apple tarts.  I slept  much better.  Thankfully, on this train, we could turn our seats into beds.

August 23, 1942

11:25 a.m.—after 4 days and 3 nights, we arrived.  My first impression: hundreds and hundreds of tarpaper-covered barracks stretched before my eyes with Heart Mountain in the background.  Sage brush and dust blew about everywhere from sand storms.

Our family of four was assigned a room in block 12, barrack 16, Room D, a 20’ x 20’ space with 4 windows, 4 beds, a closet, a pot-bellied stove, and one ceiling light bulb.  Nothing covered the thin wood flooring and only a thin layer of insulation had been placed behind the wall.  Dust and sand seeped in through the floor and windows.  We tried our best to clean this up. Then we made mattresses by stuffing our mattress ticking from a nearby pile of straw.  That night, although I was really tired, I couldn’t fall asleep right away.  How long will we have to put up with this? What surprises are in store for tomorrow?

Eventually the floor was covered with what looked like linoleum and the walls were covered with better insulation. This improved our privacy to some degree, but we still could hear loud conversations and noises from the adjoining rooms.

August 24 1942

Rain came again, followed by a dust storm.

Since I was among the first group from Pomona, I applied for a job at the information office in order to help the new arrivals locate any missing baggage and to take them to their future “homes.”  I still remember when a young boy came for help, because his crippled mother was in a wheelchair and couldn’t manage taking the stairs up to their room.  I had to go to the hospital to get a requisition from Dr. Erwin and then to the administration office to Mr. Lane and then finally to the carpenter shop.  What a bunch of red tape!  The work was tedious and tiring but enjoyable. During the lulls between “new” arrivals, I enjoyed talking to the others who were helping there.

August 26, 1942

Today was the last train from Pomona.  Just as the last persons were coming in, a terrific wind storm stirred up the air.

August 29, 1942

A canteen opened right across the street from the information office.  This canteen only sold necessities, such as soap,  toothpaste and brushes, and towels.

September 3, 1942

The train arrived from Santa Anita at 4:30 p.m.

September 5, 1942

I had fun talking with Sachi Fukuda, 17-year-old receptionist, who analyzed my character today by selecting my “dream girl”. She was right, too!

Also working at the office was Fred Suto from Los Angeles.  He was a little older than I, and we became close friends.  He seems to think along the same lines as I do. We went for walks around the camp almost every day after work. We talked about everything from women to “evacuation” to the homework assignments for the evening classes we were taking.

September 10, 1942

Many vandals were going around and punching holes in the latrine celotex; last night Mr. Shimizu’s next door neighbor was attacked and his glasses broken.  The Santa Anita bunch seem to be very mean.

September 15, 1942

On my first day at the Engineering Department, most of the work involved surveying.

Fortunately, a licensed surveyor, Mr. Shikamura, came aboard so I was able to apply what I had learned at Berkeley.

November 4, 1942

The survey team was ordered to put laths (wood stakes) around the boundary of the camp.  I had suspicions about what we were doing.  Ironically and cruelly, as prisoners, we were fencing ourselves behind barbed wire.  Back in August, when I arrived here there was no fence, just nine guard towers located around the approximately one-mile square perimeter. Each guard tower had two powerful searchlights, a machine gun, and was manned by soldiers with rifles.  No prisoner, as far as I was aware, had ever tried to escape from camp, so the idea of a fence seemed ridiculous to me.  I decided to protest and told our block  manager, Ted Chiba, about what was happening and that I opposed this.  His reply: “I’ll bring this up at the Block Managers’ meeting tomorrow”.  However, nothing happened, and I did not follow up on my protest.  I don’t remember why, but I probably felt that any further efforts would be wasted ones.

Despite the insult of the fence, most of our work served a better purpose.  For example, the engineering handbook that was in my luggage helped us devise a rod for measuring the amount of gasoline stored in a cylindrical tank.

Thankfully, our lives were not “all work and no play.”  When the high school gym was built, the Engineering Department joined an industrial league with those from the police, fire, maintenance, carpenters’, and other departments, and I had fun playing for our basketball and softball teams.

In high school, I tried out for the 120 lb. basketball team and at the University tried out for the 130 lb. team; I never made either team.  However, I  managed to play on the Troop 12 basketball team back in San Francisco.  Also, I used to play as a left fielder for a make-up hard ball team.  I once hit a right field home run, which the other team contested was hit out of bounds. Our team argued, “It’s a fair ball,” and that we had won. There was no prolonged argument; both teams were playing for fun.

Soon after we 10,000 plus prisoners were housed (sadly, we were then the third largest city in the state of Wyoming), a group of parents from San Jose approached me and asked, “Will you be scout master for a new Boy Scout Troop?”  I was surprised but assumed they had learned that I was an Eagle Scout with San Francisco Troop 12. I listened to their concerns: “Our young sons have too much time on their hands.  There are no organized activities, and it’s difficult trying to keep the family together.”

I asked for time to think about their request. To me, starting a new troop was overwhelming.  Was I capable of assuming such a responsibility and putting forth the necessary time and effort?  After a week of thinking about it, I decided to accept their request. This new Troop #343 of the Wyoming Council was one of about six other troops from Southern California. Eventually Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, Campfire Girls and other youth organizations formed as well.

We held our troop’s meetings and activities in a mess hall.  Whenever we threw a party, the five pounds of sugar I had carried into camp came in handy, because the chef would use it to bake a cake for us.  We also held joint activities with the other camp troops and, in time, with outside troops.  We had annual competitions in marching, accurate knot tying, and fastest belt  threading, among others.

At each meeting of Troop 343 we spent time preparing for the annual competition so the boys would learn what to do and how to do things best at the events. I was proud when our boys finished first in one of the competitions.

One of the Senior Patrol leaders was Buddy Takeda.   At a reunion in  2004 of our troop and other San Jose troops, he remembered that “the best thing when I used to meet with you in your unit was that toaster,” Takeda told me.  “You’d talk to me and all I could think of was that I’d get toast—and you had real butter.”

I, too, remember the toaster.  It was collapsible but, when assembled, looked like a pyramid without a peak.  We placed it on top of the stove so that we could make four slices of toast at a time.

In the early days, troops weren’t allowed to leave camp so overnight trips, a staple of scouting, were out.  The restriction eventually was lifted and the boys took a memorable one-week trip to Yellowstone National Park, where we built a wooden bridge across one of the streams.  The Girl Scouts and Campfire Girls also spent a week there.

I have since learned from a newspaper article that at one of the events with outside troops, a scout from the nearby town of Cody and a Scout from our Troop 343 shared a tent and became good friends.  Years later, the scout from Cody, Alan Simpson, was elected to the United States Senate and the Scout from Troop 343, Norman Mineta, was elected to Congress and eventually appointed to a Cabinet position.

December, 1942

I expected a colder winter than the winters I was used to in California but not the 28̊ below zero coldness we experienced for 6 days.  This also turned out to be a record cold for this area.  I couldn’t imagine working outdoors, but we were assigned in teams of three to flush the fire hydrants.  Otherwise, the water would freeze and burst the hydrants.  Dressed in heavy wool pea coats and wearing insulated hats with ear muffs and insulated gloves, we would attach a wrench to the fire hydrant plug and pound on the handle of the wrench to get the water to flow.

I still remember the loud, clear, ringing sound of the hammer resounding across the winter quiet of the entire camp.


Works Cited

Bosworth, Alan R.. America’s Concentration Camps.  New York:  W.W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1967.

Personal Justice Denied:   Report of the Commission on  Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians.  Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 1971.

In the aftermath of World War II, more than 110,000 persons of Japanese ancestry – roughly two-thirds of whom were American citizens – were released from forced imprisonment in U.S. concentration camps. But released to return where, after being taken from their homes along the West Coast? When they were finally allowed to leave the internment camps, they faced a new challenge: How do you resume a life so interrupted.
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